Society

Chinese Fashion: The Chic Side Of Made In China

Chinese cosmetic and apparel companies that once operated in obscurity are now making a real name for themselves, at least among domestic consumers, who see brands like Li-Ning and Bosideng as providing both quality and style.

Models present creations from the Li-Ning Fall/Winter 2019 collection during the New York Fashion Week.

Julie Zaugg

BEIJING — It's September 2018, and New York Fashion Week is in full swing. Among the shows put on by prominent fashion houses, "Chinese Day," organized by the e-commerce platform Tmall, makes a particularly big impact. And what really has people talking is the bold collection launched that day by Li-Ning, an unknown Chinese sportswear brand.

The company, founded by Olympic gold-medal gymnast Li-Ning, actually dates back to 1990. And yet, for most of its history, the brand limited itself to unimaginative lines of sneakers and sportswear.

"It used to be that people would buy Li-Ning when they could not afford Nike or Adidas,'' Dao Nguyen, founder of the Essenzia consulting firm, recalls.

All of that changed after New York Fashion Week.

Li-Ning isn't the only Chinese brand to shift course in that way. Several other companies are also revolutionizing the universe of fashion and beauty right now in the so-called Middle Kingdom.

Once synonymous with cheap, poor quality, Made in China has undergone a striking transformation in the past last years, moving upmarket and gaining popularity among the 1.4 billion people inhabiting this huge country.

''This phenomenon began a dozen years ago, with the arrival of Chinese creators such as Masha ma, Huishan Zhang or Angel Chen, graduates of the top fashion schools in Paris, London and New York,'' explains Babette Radclyffe-Thomas, a Chinese fashion specialist.

After working with Western designers, they went back home to built their own labels. It took a while for the shift to really take root. Chinese brands did not reach the mass market until 2018. But what they did have was geographic proximity to the production chains that turned China into the world's factory.

''They were able to absorb the expertise and workforce gravitating around the manufacturing sector which developed in the delta of the Pearls river, in the south of the country,'' says Rui Ma, an expert on Chinese start-ups.

Some of these brands initially produced goods for Western clients before launching their own line. An example is Bosideng, which was founded on the mid 1970s and produced parkas for Adidas and The North Face. But starting about 10 years ago, the company began promoting its own luxury parkas.

''These suppliers learned by observing what their clients and other regional factories were doing and drew their inspiration from them to create their own collections,'' explains Mark Tanner, founder of the consulting agency China Skinny.

'Dual circulation' is one of Xi's favorite expressions.

The improvement in quality of Chinese brands fits in with the government's goal of wanting to promote domestic consumption in parallel to exports. The strategy is called ''dual circulation,'' and it has become one of President Xi Jinping's favorite expressions.

The tariffs war between Beijing and Washington has accelerated the process, encouraging China to move away from its dependency on Western goods.

Leading the charge are brands like Peacebird, Urban Revivo and Ochirly, which are frequently described as China's Zara or H&M. In fact, it was precisely after visiting a Zara store in Japan that Urban Revivo's founder, Li Mingguang, chose to replicate the Spanish chain in China, starting in the provinces in the middle of the country and in mid-sized cities along the coast line, where the company wouldn't have to face international competition.

Today, the brand owns 200 stores, and its sales have gone up an average of 50% every year since the company was founded in 2006.

One of the strengths of these companies is that they know to adapt to local tastes. As Babette Radclyffe-Thomas explains: "A Chinese cosmetics brand won't try to market a lipstick with purplish or blueish hues, because it wouldn't go well on an Asian skin."

Perfect Diary is a case in point. Created in 2016 by former staff of Procter & Gamble, the cosmetics group based their esthetic on the androgynous codes taking place in the world of video games and mangas, which are extremely popular among Chinese youth.

A visitor tries beauty products at the second China International Import Exposition in Shanghai — Photo: Zhangchuanqi/Xinhua/ZUMA

''Young people born in the 1980s and 1990s are proud of their Chinese legacy,'' says Rui Ma. "They do not hesitate anymore to display their patriotism and this frequently translates into buying goods produced locally.''

A study done by the Nielsen institute in 2019 shows that 68% of Chinese consumers prefer local brands to foreign ones. That's a complete shift compared to their parents' generation.

Pride and nostalgia

Blunders by some foreign fashion houses have also fed this nationalism and sparked a defensive feeling of pride towards local brands. ''Dolce & Gabbana lost all credibility in China following an advertising campaign showing a Chinese model eating a pizza and spaghetti with chopsticks,'' Dao Nguyen explains.

Blunders by some foreign fashion houses have sparked a defensive feeling of pride towards local brands.

In 2018, Gap found itself in hot water for a shirt that featured a map of China but that didn't include Taiwan and a part of Tibet. More recently, H&M, Nike, Adidas, Burberry and Converse all faced boycotts in China after announcing they would stop using cotton produced in Xinjiang because of questions over forced labor risks. That, in turn, benefitted Chinese companies like Li-Ning and Anta Sports, whose shares exploded.

Typically, the trend in China is to look forward. There's a preference for modernity. Lately, though, young people have been embracing a retro, nostalgic kind of style, as epitomized by Li-Ning's 80s-looking sneakers. Other examples include the throw-back aluminium boxes that some candy companies have reintroduced.

Still, not every company has had success going retro. The French brand Balenciaga — in an obvious reference to the kitchy backdrops long used by Chinese photo studios — launched an ad campaign showing models posing in front of waterfalls and cherry-blossom trees. But consumers ended up feeling put off by the imagery.

Real-time innovation

Whereas some brands are looking to the past for inspiration, others are embracing the future, particularly in terms of new communications technology. Perfect Diary, for example, relies on a community strategy that involves attracting consumers through private discussion groups on WeChat messaging.

"They're hosted by an avatar called Xiao Wanzi, who exchanges makeup tips with the brand's fans, answers their questions and introduces them to exclusive products," Radclyffe-Thomas explains.

The strategy allows the company to collect precious data on customer preferences and buying habits. This is coupled with a sophisticated, real-time analysis of the products performing the best online.

"These brands make extensive use of the data available to them," says Tanner. "They are constantly expanding their assortment based on current trends, testing and then removing from sale the goods that have not been successful."

Some brands introduce more than 10,000 new products each month.

Despite their domestic success, Chinese fashion and beauty companies still struggle to make their mark abroad. A good example is Bosideng, which opened a store in London and another in New York. But have now closed.

"The luxury-down jacket market was saturated and they were unable to compete with more established brands such as Moncler," says Radclyffe-Thomas.

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A tribute to the 30,000 Iranian political prisoners murdered in Iran in 1988

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Laba diena!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Afghanistan's Taliban demand to speak at the United Nations, China takes a bold ecological stand and we find out why monkeys kept their tails and humans didn't. Business magazine America Economia also looks at how Latin American countries are looking to attract a new generation of freelancers known as "digital nomads" in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

[*Lithuanian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Taliban ask to speak at UN: With global leaders gathered in New York for the 76th meeting of the UN General Assembly, Afghanistan's new rulers say their country's previously accredited United Nations ambassador no longer represents the country, and have demanded a new Taliban envoy speak instead. Afghanistan is scheduled to give the final intervention next Monday to the General Assembly, and a UN committee must now rule who can speak.

• Four corpses found on Belarus border with Poland: The discovery of bodies of four people on Belarus-Poland border who appear to have died from hypothermia are raising new accusations that Belarus is pushing migrants to the eastern border of the European Union, possibly in retaliation over Western sanctions following the contested reelection of the country's strongman Alexander Lukashenko. The discovery comes amid a surge of largely Afghani and Iraqi migrants attempting to enter Poland in recent weeks.

• China to stop building coal-burning power plants abroad: Under pressure to limit emissions to meet Paris climate agreement goals, China announces an end to funding future projects in Indonesia, Vietnam and other countries through its Belt and Road initiative.

• Turkey ratifies Paris climate agreement: Following a year of wildfires and flash floods, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced at the UN that Turkey will become the last G-20 country to ratify the emissions-limiting accords. Turkey already signed the agreement in 2016, but has yet to hold a vote in parliament.

• Mass evacuations following Canary Islands volcano: More than 6,000 people have fled the Spanish archipelago as heavy flows of lava have buried hundreds of homes. Four earthquakes have also hit the Canaries since the Sunday eruption, which could also cause other explosions and the release of toxic gas.

• Rare earthquake hits Melbourne: The 5.9 magnitude quake struck near Melbourne in southern Australia, with aftershocks going as far Adelaide, Canberra and Launceston. Videos shared on social media show at least one damaged building, with power lines disrupted in Australia's second largest city. No injuries have been reported.

• The evolutionary tale of tails: Charles Darwin first discovered that humans evolved to lose this biological trait. But only now are New York scientists showing that it was a single genetic tweak that could have caused this shift, while our monkey relatives kept their backside appendages.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"The roof of Barcelona" — El Periodico daily reports on the latest delay from what may be the longest-running construction project in the world. Work on the iconic Barcelona church La Sagrada Familia, which began all the way back in 1882 as the vision of master architect Antoni Gaudí, was slated to be completed in 2026. The Barcelona-based daily reports that a press conference Tuesday confirmed that the deadline won't be met, in part because of delays related to COVID-19. Officials also provided new details about the impending completion of the Mare de Déu tower (tower of the Virgin), the first tower of the temple to be completed in 44 years. Although it is currently the second tallest spire of the complex, it will become the highest point of the Sagrada Familia, reaching 172.5 meters thanks to an illuminated "great cross."

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Latin America, the next mecca for digital nomads

Latin American countries want to cash in on the post-pandemic changes to the fundamental ways we work and live, in particular by capitalizing on a growing demand from the new wave of remote workers and "youngish" professional freelancers with money to spend, reports Natalia Vera Ramírez in business magazine America Economia.

💻🏖️ Niels Olson, Ecuador's tourism minister, is working hard to bring "digital nomads" to his country. He believes that attracting this new generation of freelancers who can work from anywhere for extended visits is a unique opportunity for all. Living in a town like Puerto López, he wrote on Twitter, the expat freelancer could "work by the sea, live with a mostly vaccinated population, in the same time zone, (enjoy) an excellent climate, and eat fresh seafood." For Ecuador, the new influx of visitors with money to spend would help boost the country's economy.

🧳 While online-based freelancers already hopped from country to country before COVID-19, the pandemic has boosted their current numbers to around 100 million worldwide. The Inter-American Development Bank estimates there could be a billion roaming, digital workers by 2050. Some European countries already issue visas for digital nomads. They include Germany, Portugal, Iceland, Croatia, Estonia and the Czech Republic, but in the Americas, only four countries make the list, namely Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Panama and Costa Rica.

💰 In August 2021, Costa Rica approved a law for remote workers and international service providers, intended to attract digital nomads and make its travel sector more competitive. The law provides legal guarantees and specific tax exemptions for remote workers choosing to make the country their place of work. It allows foreign nationals earning more than $3,000 a month to stay for up to a year in the country, with the ability to renew their visa for an additional year. If applicants are a family, the income requisite rises to $5,000.


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$2.1 billion

Google announced yesterday it will spend $2.1 billion to buy a sprawling Manhattan office building, in one of the largest sales of a building in U.S. history. The tech giant plans on growing its New York workforce to more than 14,000 people.

📣 VERBATIM

It is sickening and shameful to see this kind of president give such a lie-filled speech on the international stage.

— Opposition Brazilian congresswoman Vivi Reis in response to President Jair Bolsonaro's inflammatory 12-minute speech at the UN General Assembly. The unvaccinated head of state touted untested COVID-19 cures, criticized public health measures and boasted that the South American country's environmental protections were the best in the world.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank & Bertrand Hauger

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